When Names are ‘Americanized’

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about my decision to drop my “Americanized” name in favor of my Persian birth name, and a number of you chimed in about the perils and pitfalls of having a foreign name in the U.S.

The choice to drop or legally change such a name can be complicated. For some, birth names don’t match the common name structure in the United States. Commenter Curtis Alia writes that U.S. officials documented the wrong last name for his Arab father when he immigrated to the U.S. due to misunderstanding the Arab naming structure:  “When I was born, I was given that same incorrect last name, and only until 1994 did we finally change our names to the actual family names from back home.”

Some immigrants make the decision to legally change their names rather than adopt an informal nickname, and marriage presents a convenient opportunity to do so. But that decision could mean losing a meaningful connection. Commenter island girl in a land w/o sea, who is an immigrant with a Spanish name, writes:

When I got married, I changed my name to my husband’s more “American” family name — a choice that i still struggle with. At the time, I was tired of people mangling my last name and making assumptions based on it. Yet now that my parents are gone, I sometimes wish that I had retained my father’s name, or at the very least, come up with some sort of compound-name compromise.

The practice of adopting “Americanized” nicknames becomes less popular in communities with growing immigrant populations. Leslie Berestein Rojas, from our sister blog Multi-American, writes that particularly in L.A. “this phenomenon” of adopting an “Americanized” name “is not so much the norm any more with Latinos, the majority-minority, but it remains relatively commonplace with other groups”

And sometimes “Americanized” names just sound plain ridiculous. Commenter jaded used to work at a company owned by a Persian man:

I remember at one point his family friend joined the company with a very Persian name. He created a name that was completely silly, it sounded like a comic book character.  It caused immense laughter in the office when ever he used it during business meeting.  Frankly, we preferred learning to pronounce people’s real names. I always wonder how hard it was for [the owner] when he first came to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution, and how it became so important to have an “American name”

I can only guess what the “comic book character” name is, but the anecdote reminded me of a joke by Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani (which can be seen in the middle of this clip):

Some of my friends just gave up on the whole thing and became Italian. You ever met those guys — the Middle Eastern-Italian guys? I got a buddy, he’ll be at a party and meet some girls. He’ll be like this: “Come meet my friends over here, come over here, come on. This is Hassan, Hossein, Ali, Reza, Mohammed, Maz — and I’m Tony!”